Of research(ers)

We all agree that we want better gadgets, more money all around, supercomputers that can decipher the meaning of 42, missiles that can target hostile neighbours, a cure for cancer, quick reversal of hair loss*, and cold fusion.  Do we, however, ever wonder how these things will actually happen? “Duh! Companies should fund research!”, some say. “Our educational system is failing us”, others say. “Our IITs are useless”, we all agree**. Setting aside for a moment the question of what enables research, have we even spared a moment for who is actually doing the research?

Research is, essentially, a very vague and thankless job.

Source: Phd Comics 1724
Source: Phd Comics 1724

A researcher needs to be really passionate about their field in order to stay motivated. The actual subject itself doesn’t matter. It could be the nature of reality, the importance of blank verse in 18th century poetry, the very building blocks of life, the speed at which porn travels over the internet – what drives progress is the drive (sometimes bordering on obsession, if we are to be honest) to discover something new.

Source: Phd Comics 1195
Source: Phd Comics 1195

Since it’s never clear whether the question itself is valid, let alone whether it’s possible to find an answer, research can only happen an environment specifically designed to encourage risk and pursue knowledge without the need for immediate returns. Do we enable this in our country?

A typical aspiring researcher in our country first fights to enter the field of his/her choice. For example, for a woman anything that involves climbing a stool is out because she might get pregnant one day and be a hazard to herself and everyone else in the lab and she will be excluded in interviews even if she ever makes it out of her house. For a man, anything that doesn’t involve making instant money is out because he needs to support a family one day. That leaves the arts for women and everything but the arts for men, right? Something like that***.

Once a person does find the field they’re passionate about, they need to find the support to make their way through about 10 years of specialized education. So a woman tries to find an advisor who will take her on as a student despite the perceived risk of her getting married halfway through and getting more interested in popping out babies than in her research. A man tries to convince his family that choosing research instead of making oodles of money in the financial/consulting sector is not proof of insanity.

Source: Phd Comics 995
Source: Phd Comics 995

Having fought their battles, these men and women get degrees from the IITs and the MITs of the world and decide to pursue a career in their home country. What do they find? They find their options are:

  1. Work for the Indian branches of the large MNC’s for lower pay than they would get in the headquarters.
  2. Work in a university in India, hopefully an IIT

I have no statistics to back me up but I’m willing to bet that the number of potential researchers from our pool of bright and passionate people who actually end up even considering teaching in an IIT each year is countable by a toddler. What do we do with these people when they stray into our path? We:

  1. Pay them a pittance
  2. Make them jump through hoops to travel to one international conference a year where even graduate students abroad travel several times a year on grant money
  3. Either provide crumbling housing in the middle of expensive cities and a tiny HRA (anyone looked up rents in Powai/Hiranandani area recently? I thought not) or locate our IITs in the middle of nowhere where spouses cannot find jobs (all in favour of moving to Kharagpur****?)
  4. Have frequent news hour debates about what the IITs are doing in the first place let alone what they’re doing wrong
  5. Share idiotic memes that question what IITans do for the country and how many have ever joined the army (maybe none but how many design the missiles and satellites that the army uses?)
  6. Support budgets that cut funds for Science and Technology and provide tax breaks to MNC’s who do nothing to fund research
Source: Phd COmics 1559
Source: Phd COmics 1559

Net result? Innovation happens despite our best efforts not because of it. I thought we were supposed to be a culture that values education. We pride ourselves on being a society where the studious ones are role models not social outcasts. We like to boast that we revere our institutes of learning as we do our temples. Well, at least that part’s true. We do with our institutes exactly what we do with our temples – worship from afar and let the gopurams collapse. No wonder we feel the need to make absurd claims about the past instead of looking to the future. Flying chariots, anyone?

* And a way to immediately get rid of belly fat

** Of course, we are all agreed that our sons absolutely must get B.Techs from there

*** More subtle distinctions do exist: Anthropology and field work are unsuited for women. Men should avoid those weird fields where industry doesn’t offer consulting assignments

**** A fine town of course, but not exactly a major employment hub for those not employed by the Indian Railways or IIT Kharagpur

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